Can Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince transform the country?

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has surprised policymakers in regional and Western capitals

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

For Saudi watchers, the new plan “Vision 2030” is the most radical economic news coming from the country since the establishment of Aramco in 1933. However, its trajectory reverses the old economic pillars of the oil boom days, promising to rid the country of the petroleum dependency, while cutting subsidies and boosting the middle class.

Spearheading the plan and Saudi’s ambitious transformation is its youngest Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who since assuming his responsibilities in January 2015 has surprised policymakers in regional and Western capitals.

Foreign diplomats in Riyadh call him “Mr Everything” because of his large portfolio that includes the ministry of defense, the royal court and as chairman of the Council for Economic and Development affairs. Those who know and have worked with Prince Salman, describe him as "a bold thinker, a strong conversationalist and a very meticulous leader”.

Even before becoming the first of the Grandsons to assume the third most powerful position in the country, the 31-year-old has been a crucial aide to his father King Salman. He accompanied the King since age 17, and helped in both getting the family and the government priorities in order, angering and clashing at times with traditionalists and big spenders.

Ambitious and workaholic

Other than his young age, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince’s approach to governance and openness to the media signal a break with the more cautious style of his predecessors. In the last six months alone, Prince Salman granted two lengthy interviews to The Economist and Bloomberg, and he gave an unprecedented 48 minutes televised interview to Al-Arabiya. Those who follow Saudi politics closely will pick up immediately on the more open and direct tone by the Deputy Crown Prince in speaking to both the Saudi public and the West.

In the three interviews, Prince Salman comes across as a detail-oriented planner who exhibits the knowledge and understanding of the economic changes, albeit unpopular, that Saudi Arabia should undertake.

His 16-hour working regimen, and surrounding himself with top tier economic experts and advisers who include the Secretary General of Public Investment Fund, Abdul Rahman Al-Mufdhi, are driving a sense of optimism in his agenda inside the country. A US visitor who met the Prince in Riyadh recently, described him as “great conversationalist, very smart and with a strong work ethic.”

Those who know and have worked with Prince Salman describe him as "a bold thinker, a strong conversationalist and a very meticulous leader”

Joyce Karam

In his Al-Arabiya interview, there is an embrace of big ideas that challenge economic old taboos in Saudi Arabia. A primary example is in Prince Salman’s pledge for transparency in the process of converting Saudi Aramco into a holding company, guaranteeing that all the financial information will be disclosed and that the new board will be elected.

“In this day and age, no country can afford to not be transparent”, Prince Salman (also known as MBS) told Al-Arabiya while decrying the “oil addiction” that Saudi has developed over the last century.

MBS’ message also takes note of the demographic changes in Saudi Arabia, with almost 51 percent of the population under the age of 25. Creating job opportunities and reforming the subsidies system, while leveling the field for women are echoed in his Bloomberg interview. Coming on the heels of a cabinet decision to reform and outline the powers of religious police, this new plan points in the direction of incremental changes in the country.

Pragmatic on foreign policy

In his meetings with US officials and Arab dignitaries in the last year, there is a strong impression that the Saudi deputy Crown Prince is “a good listener”, and not wed to ideological thinking or dogma in the foreign policy discussions.

He has a close working relationship with the United Arab Emirates, and has prioritized strategic long-term interest over current differences, as seen in his latest visit to Sochi where he met Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a more regional context, the new Saudi leadership has shown more signs of pragmatism in approaching the Muslim Brotherhood for example than the former leadership, while displaying a more hawkish stance against Iran.

Saudi officials see the war in Yemen as a direct response to a national security threat from Iran on their country’s border. In Syria as well, Riyadh is focused on the growing Iranian influence in the conflict. Over the course of his 16 months in office, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Salman has attempted to restructure Riyadh’s foreign spending.

There is a new pivot to Africa, peeling off Sudan from the Iranian axis, and drawing plans to open a military base in Djibouti. This is paralleled by scrapping funds to Lebanon and applying more political and economic pressure on Hezbollah.

Saudi’s 2030 vision and Prince Salman’s big ideas come at a critical juncture for Saudi Arabia. His success could turn him into Saudi’s Deng Xiaoping, the former Chinese leader who transformed his country’s economy in the eighties, and helped turn China into the global giant that it is today.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Bureau Chief for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on US policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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